This article walks through the process of teaching your dog to sit on cue reliably. Even if your dog already knows to sit when asked, it’s handy to practice teaching sit with the ‘lure and reward’ method. With this technique you lure your dog into the position you want with the smell of a tasty treat in your hand and then reward him by letting him eat it. There are many advantages to using this method: by luring your dog you are communicating to him what it is you want him to do. If you do this correctly, you will be able to progress rapidly in just one session, which gives you a chance to use a lot of reinforcement to motivate him to sit. Secondly, by luring the dog you are creating a foundation to teach both a visual and verbal cue. Visual cues are especially valuable because dogs naturally respond to them better than they do sounds.
To get started, put a tasty, smelly treat in your hand and move it to within an inch or two of your dog’s nose. Let him smell the hidden treat to get his attention focused on your hand and then move your hand slowly backward, through his ears, toward his tail. Don’t raise your hand up in the air, or he will try jumping for it. If he keeps his eyes on your hand, his chin will raise up and his hindquarters will go down. As soon as this happens way “Good!” and immediately give him the treat. Notice that you haven’t said ‘sit’ yet. Hold off talking to your dog until you can reliably get him to sit by moving your hand over his head. Once you are willing to bet money he will do it the next time, say ‘sit’ a split second before you start moving your hand.
As with all exercises, practice this in a quiet, non-distracting environment. You will be more successful if you scatter your training sessions throughout the day and keep each session no longer than 5 minutes. Most dogs do best if asked to sit no more than 5-6 times in a row. It is important that when you practice to vary the location and how often you ask him to sit in one session. As long as he sits, give him the treat, celebrate his brilliance and go on to something else. If he didn’t do so well, continue until he improves, and then stop on a good note.
After a few days of practice, start to focus on the movement of your hand. Begin to emphasize the upward sweep of your hand, moving less over his head and more in an upward curve toward your body. This visual signal will come in extremely handy when you are on the telephone, visitors are walking in the door, or when you are in the middle of a conversation with somebody.
Pay attention to your body movements when you are asking your dog to sit. If you lean forward and say ‘sit’, then the dog will think it is both the leaning forward and the verbal ‘sit’ that is the cue. If you then start to say ‘sit down’ and do not lean forward, your dog is not likely to respond. This is not him being disobedient, this is just that you have now given him a different cue and he has not learnt what ‘sit down’ means. In is mind, it could be that the leaning forward is the cue to sit. Remember from the first part of this series, dogs use visual signals to communicate with each other, so you have to pay particular attention on how your own behaviour affects your dog’s behaviour.
After a week of saying ‘sit’ just before luring your dog into position, start now to say ‘sit’ well before you move your hand. After a few successful repetitions, try saying ‘sit’ by itself, without moving your hand or body in any way. Wait 3-4 seconds to give your dog a chance to sit using the word alone. If he does, have a party, giving him exuberant praise and some extra treats for being so clever, and then try again. If, he continues to stand still, looking as if he’s waiting for you to tell him what to do, help him by using the movement of your arm as a cue. Resist the urge to repeat the word sit; that will only teach your dog to ignore the first time he hears it, and wait for you to repeat it.
Go back to doing a few repetitions of sit with the verbal and hand signal. Then go back to trying to use the verbal cue by itself, remembering to give lots of enthusiastic praise and treats if he complies to the sound of your voice by itself. Remember that all dogs learn at different paces, and some dogs are more visual than others. Just keep working at it, concentrate on your own behaviour and train yourself to be conscious about what you say and how you move your arm.
Once your dog has learnt to respond to the word ‘sit’ without a visual cue, alternate between using either the word or the motion by itself. If for whatever reason, your dog stops responding, then don’t be afraid to go back to the beginning. You will find that this is less frustrating and that you will get to where you last left off very quickly. Be sure to give a few extra treats if he responds when he is distracted.
This is also a good time to transition from always having a treat in your hand. Wait for a time when there are no distractions and your dog is hungry. Ask your dog to sit with the visual cue, but this time hold the treat in your other hand – the one you are not using to cue your dog. We want the dog to learn that something good will come from doing what you ask, even if he can’t smell something wonderful in the hand he’s watching. If he doesn’t sit when asked, let him smell the treat in your other hand, then ask again. As soon as he sits, immediately offer him the treat from the other hand.